Call for Comments: Photo Sharing isn’t for Photos?!?

From Katya: Instagram recently announced that the photo sharing app is no longer a place to share photos. The actual design implications aren’t clear nor is the actual goal. Instagram head Adam Mosseri says that the app’s goal is “to…entertain” with a focus on “Creators, Video, Shopping and Messaging.” Which reads as a pretty accurate representation of what Instagram (IG) has become: an advertising platform with a side of engaging content and social connection. Alongside the TikTok copycat features like “Stories” and “Reels”, shopping has become increasingly central to the IG experience.

Responses have ranged from calling IG a move towards irrelevancy to actual protest as communities that depend on IG photo sharing fear that their social networks, and followings, are in jeopardy. Others have wondered whether the shift to video is related to Instagram’s increasing alleged policing of creators by depressing “controversial” posts and outright suspensions/bans.

The common thread is that IG are ignoring user and creator input. Perhaps a fair assumption since the feedback seems largely negative. Nonetheless, I think the idea that they’re ignoring research entirely is unlikely. Facebook and its subsidiaries conduct massive amounts of research on user behavior and platform performance. If we take for granted that they are listening to the research they’ve invested so much in there’s a much more interesting conversation about the tension inherent to social media platforms.

I don’t have access to IG’s data, by any means, but looking at the public outcry in combination with my years on the platform I suspect that they are listening to users. The problem is that there are multiple classes of users: consumers, creators, and advertisers. IG is in the business of selling products from advertisers to consumers with creators acting as a middle man either through sponsored posts or just giving consumers a reason to come to the app in the first place. As advertising has increased it may drive away consumers by diluting the content they came for and creators because it’s harder for their work to be seen. The shift to video etc. seems like it’s trying to jump on what other popular platforms are doing to stem the tide. Whether that’s going to be successful remains to be seen – maybe it pans out despite the criticism.

This shift is in the context of IG’s apparent increase in policing content on their platform – although this is happening across platforms as they try to manage social and political tension (or worse) appearing on their platforms. Many communities allege that suspensions and accounts deleted by IG are on the rise. Anecdotally, what was a once a rare occurrence on my personal feed seems to now happen at least a few times a month. Activists using the platform to get the word out are not the only apparent target — Trans, Queer, Black, Indigenous, and people of color allege that they are victims of mass reporting that existing policies do not account for.

The question is not “are their design choices based in reality,” it’s “who are their design choices in service of?” IG, like most social media platforms, has to serve advertisers for its model to work; but, most people dislike ads (and would likely dislike paying for services even more.) What I’m interested in is whether or not that balancing act is sustainable. Some platforms, including IG, have stood the still very short test of time better than others. Yet maybe social media platforms tend towards a boom-bust cycle when the things that make them money conflict with what makes users want to be there.

This episode has been a long time coming. I don’t have a conclusion here rather than a series of questions I’ve been thinking about for a few years now. How can companies that exist on consumer-created content do so ethically and sustainably? What would a more community based platform look like? Is social media really here to stay?

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